Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones has been marketed as yet another entry in Liam Neeson’s rebirth as a tough guy action star. This is unfortunate, since it’s likely damaged its appeal by appearing to be more of the same, something it’s definitely not. Tombstones is much, much more than anything Neeson’s done in this newest phase of his career — from the goofy Taken movies to the trite profundity of The Grey (2011). While never managing to reinvent the detective movie, writer/director Frank clearly understands that stories about detectives are always more interesting than detective stories.
There is a genuine sense of human empathy here, conveyed perfectly by Neeson as world-weary private dick Matt Scudder. Matt is a retired cop and a recovering alcoholic; the reasons for both are often hinted at in the film’s opening (the way these flashbacks unfold are similar in structure to Frank’s overlooked The Lookout (2007)) — one that harkens back to ‘70s hard-boiled exploitation flicks and acts as a comment on a kind of Dirty Harry vigilante cop. As the plot kicks in, it’s 1999, the specter of Y2K is constantly around (more for window dressing and to set up a passing comment on the nature of evil by one of the film’s villains), and Matt is an unlicensed private detective. Because of his standing outside the law, he’s persuaded by a junkie named Howie (TV actor Eric Nelsen) to help out his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens, The Fifth Estate), a drug trafficker whose wife Carrie (Razane Jammal) was kidnapped, held for ransom and chopped to bits despite Kenny paying the ransom money.
Matt reluctantly takes the case and starts to track down the kidnappers, quickly finding that this isn’t their first murder. Tombstones unravels in a fairly straightforward manner as far as the plot goes, and it doesn’t necessarily cover any new ground. Occasionally, it feels like a pared down True Detective shorn of all the weird metaphysical concerns (that the film wasn’t marketed in a similar fashion was a mistake), while some of the detective work feels a bit too much like an episode of Law & Order. But what sets Tombstones apart is its own nuance. I don’t think there’s a better word for it either, since the film’s at its best in its understatedness.
This isn’t a movie concerned with car chases, overlong gunfights or heavy-handed philosophizing. Instead, it’s a violent crime film about the human toll violence and crime can take, and the place where good inhabits that world. Tombstones can be a grim movie but — thankfully — never a nihilistic or self-serious one. For the first time I can remember, Neeson’s given a character with a sense of humor and a sense of humanity. He’s no killing machine (despite what the trailer tells you, Matt has a very understandable aversion to guns), and his reasons for continuing with the case have much more to do with the victims and a sense of justice than the money being paid to him by Kenny. Neeson’s playing a real-life human being, one with compassion and sympathy, and it’s a role he nails. On top of this, Frank shoots everything with an understated style, one that’s never fussy or distracting, but is obviously the mark of a man trying his damnedest to make something that stands out, and which suits the nature of the material. Combined, it’s these aspects that often raise A Walk Among the Tombstones above the basic potboiler it could’ve easily become, to something occasionally near great. Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.